Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Triple A Failure

23 February 2013 by Nicholas in Current Events

Moody’s has just announced that it is decreasing the UK’s credit rating from AAA to AA1. It doesn’t sound like much but it is the central plank of the Conservative’s policy for the country disintegrating.

David Cameron served as an adviser to Norman Lamont during Black Wednesday. Black Wednesday was when the previous Conservative government’s exchange rate policy disintegrated in a single day and cost the country billions. It rendered them unelectable for a generation. The credit down-rating is arguably worse.

We have been repeatedly informed, and elected the government based on, the idea that austerity and aggressively dealing with the country’s debt was the surest way to a financial recovery and a rejuvenated economy. This has just patently failed: our debt is now harder to pay back and will cost more to service as a result of this move. A move that is the logical conclusion of the extended failure of the government’s policy.

As a country we have had the AAA rating since 1978. This was at the time of the Labour government that we were informed “wasn’t working” and the Winter of Discontent. We had it even through the debacle of the ERM exit of Black Wednesday. Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy and the global economic collapse of 2007 didn’t hurt it. For it to be stripped away now is huge.

The Conservatives are lucky it happened after the end of the city trading on Friday. At the start of Friday (a day when the markets tend to be twitchy anyway) would have caused a huge amount of panic and negative press. There is still going to be blood on Monday. The problem is that the Conservatives can’t be seen to ditch their policy or panic. Cameron can’t suddenly get rid of Osborne (who, bluntly, has appeared massively out of his depth forever) but he can’t change the policy with Osborne at the helm.

The line that is being pushed that this is a sign of the problems that the government and country face would be in tatters if we had a reasonable opposition. Unfortunately, Ed Balls aside, we don’t. It’s also happened at the weekend which means, while it will dominate a full media cycle, there aren’t people available to really get their teeth into it. Monday is going to be crucial, as is the reaction of the tabloids and the public. Assuming it trickles down into things like the pound falling on foreign exchanges (almost certain), borrowing becoming harder and more costly (again, near certain) and the ensuing inflation this could very well be the death knell of the government. Even without a proper opposition

Why You’re Eating Horsemeat

15 February 2013 by Nicholas in Current Events

There is a wilful ignorance of how processed food is made. We don’t want to think about the reality or logistics of it, and our voluntary disconnect from our food is being challenged by the current reverberations of the presence of horse meat in the food chain.

How many times have you looked at a baked product or chocolate sweet and it has informed you that it may contain traces of nuts?

Although there are no nuts in the particular thing that you are seeking to eat, it has been made in an environment where nuts are used and there could be cross contamination. This is a simplistic example but illuminates how you can have pork or horse meat in a beef product.

Although we like to think that a meal is made in an analogous manner to how we would prepare one in a kitchen nothing could be further from the truth: everything is made on an industrial scale in ways to maximise profit. “Beef” will be bought in in huge quantities, ready minced. It will come from factories that also handle lamb, pork and (apparently) horse. A single beef burger (even if it is all beef) will contain DNA from upwards of a thousand animals, all processed and packaged in a meat plant before going to either a beef burger preparation area or plant.

Moreover, when you buy a product with a company’s or shop’s livery all over it it hasn’t been manufactured by that company. They source it from a factory that makes food for many different clients. What you are buying is a brand and a set of specifications that they try to make the manufacturer adhere to. There are going to be fewer makers than there are brands, and a bran is no guarantee of provenance. Just because you like a company’s pies doesn’t mean that their buns will come from the same manufacturer. In fact, they are highly likely not to.

This is how horse meat can enter the human food chain. It is symptomatic of ridiculous levels of naivety to actually be surprised when it does. The only way to know what is in the food you eat is to make it yourself an know exactly where all the ingredients come from. To make each meal separately and not do anything in bulk. And, as the majority of people are going to abdicate responsibility on this, we’re going to see mock indignation and hand wringing, some sop to the current outrage and the industrial preparation of food to carry on as normal.

Overreaching Conspiracies

23 December 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

Billy Wilder used to say that if you thought you had a problem with the third act of a story then the problem was invariably in the first (act). Basically a story has to be constructed in such a way as there is a pay off at the end that relates back to elements at the beginning in order for it to be satisfying. This suggests that stories are finite and that their length and form is determined by their openings, which makes a certain degree of sense to me. But what happens when your story has to run an indefinite length and still have to be satisfying?

It’s a limitation that I see in comics and television. TV is generally commissioned on a season by season basis, so may have to wrap up in a given year or keep plate spinning indefinitely. It tends to make things disintegrate either into a wholly static experience in which the overall story is never advanced or a ludicrous series of digressions that undermine the underpinning story and leave you no longer caring if they reach resolution. In the only two shows I watch that have any pretence of having a definite story but are open ended as to length they both approach this as an overreaching conspiracy.

Overreaching has two meanings, and both are wholly appropriate here. I watch the Mentalist, which is a not very good program in which a fictional crime fighting agency ignores rules as the plot dictates and engage in a seventies style chase of suspects every episode but has a titular character he elevates it from near spoof to compelling television. Unfortunately the story trying to hold it all together has a serial killer (usually a particularly solitary occupation) having enough reach and allies to be able to organise a putsch rather than just torment the protagonist.

Castle, which I suspect knows its time is limited, has a cop investigating her mother’s death that implicates large swathes of the establishment and frequently causes for jarring tone shifts. One of the reason I suspect the show runners know that their time is nigh is that they have taken steps to wrap up the conspiracy and shift the dynamic of the show. It could be they’re casting around for a new direction, but it could be that they are moving towards wrapping everything up.

Other shows, which I have never watched, I understand to have the same problem. The Fugitive was based on the search for a man guilty of murder, Lost was all based on a mystery/conspiracy and many shows disintegrate into a mass of teeming contradictions in order to satisfy the suggestion of having an overall story (The X-Files, I am sure, falls into this category). It’s a sign of the limitation of the form and the uncertainty of where the first act ends and where the third act begins. An arc is a parabola, and the way Western stories tend to be structured. Unfortunately episodic storytelling is often thoroughly linear until it heads a dead-stop or is derailed. The conspiracy is an attempt to marry these disparate disciplines. Unfortunately it often breaks both.

Challenge 25

2 October 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

There’s a movement in supermarkets where staff will challenge you to produce ID to prove that you are over 18 if they believe you to look under 25 when buying an age restricted item. To my chagrin I have never been asked to do so. The perils of looking old. This is especially annoying as one shop I regularly go in and occasionally buy alcohol in demands pensioners produce ID. I look older than octogenarians with walking sticks.

But mad ideas occur to me. The Liberal Democrats recently floated the utterly impractical idea of means testing bus passes for pensioners. The cost of doing so will no doubt massively outweigh the potential cost benefits. And The recent political consensus in this country is to open things that were formally the responsibility of the public sector to private industry.

VAT is a tax paid on the value of goods at the point of purchase. It is generally levied on items deemed non essential. One of the things about it is that it is paid on transactions within the European Union and, if memory serves, transactions with businesses or individuals from outside the EU are exempt. Which brings me to my mad idea: if you’re not an EU citizen and not legally resident within the EU then you shouldn’t be paying VAT. And supermarkets, who sell many items that have VAT on them, already have staff who check ID on restricted items.

So why don’t we challenge people to prove their residential status when they’re paying VAT? If they’re legally entitled to be in the EU then they can pay VAT on their petfood, fruit smoothie or clothing (you know, those frivolous non essential items) and if they’re not from the EU they can show their holiday itinerary, visa or be deported. You know, without paying VAT.

I just privatised vetting and immigration. At no cost. You’re welcome.

George Galloway “Defends” Julian Assange

1 September 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

George Galloway, my beloved local MP, recently made some particularly inopportune comments about the extradition of Julian Assange. To paraphrase, he said that Julian Assange hadn’t committed rape and was being extradited so the US could get their hands on him. I can see that he wanted to interrupt his exhausting schedule of not representing his constituents and doing nothing on their behalf, to weigh in on a case that has yet to be tried.

While justice has to work on a presumption of innocence, it can’t assume to predict the outcome of a pending prosecution. To dismiss a judicial process which hasn’t been completed is as dangerous to bypass judicial process altogether. However, I am not as well travelled (on the taxpayer’s expense and on their time) as Mr Galloway, so I probably missed all those show trials in Stockholm and forgot about all those untried political prisoners languishing in Sweden’s jails.

And Galloway is probably an expert in trumped up charges in the US, having himself been implicated with regards to foreign oil bribes. Mind you, I am sure he was guilty of nothing more than poor financial etiquette.

When challenged on this, Galloway did his best to melt down on twitter. He basically insulted his constituents asking questions of their MP. He disavowed part of the plank he ran on, saying that it was the council’s problem (which, actually, is true, but it didn’t stop him highlighting it in his puerile and misspelt literature) and acted in the tetchy manner of a man who doesn’t actually seem to have any intention of being held responsible or actually doing his job.

For the record, I believe Assange should only be extradited if charged, which (as I understand it) is dependent on evidence. That is to any country, which includes the US. I believe that it is in Assange’s best interest to be tried in Sweden. Or does he really believe his quest to be seen as a voice of freedom is helped by the phrases “alleged rapist” and “avoiding trial”? Certainly, it is the kind of crime that someone would want to be proved not to have committed rather than avoiding fighting.

I also think the US wants Assange embarrassed and made an example of. However, he is effectively powerless now and all that attacking him is doing is making a figurehead and martyr of him. Wikileaks is no longer a force in itself, as other sites and means of dissemination have taken up the mantle. Assange is faintly ridiculous, as his alliance with Ecuador shows.

Local News

30 July 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

I find myself in the odd situation of largely agreeing with something that George Galloway said (I am paraphrasing here): That the Telegraph and Argus (local newspaper) is too cosy with local council and that this harms local debate. Although I don’t particularly think the T and A is as sinister in its motives as Galloway appears to suggest, it is certainly complacent and seems to do precious little in the way of actual investigation or journalism.

The T and A used to boast that it had more readers than all the national papers combined within the Bradford district. It doesn’t mention that anymore. There used to be news  vendors around the city centre. Now there are none. Whatever cachet it used to have, whatever purpose it used to serve, is dying even more rapidly than print press as a whole. The very particular death of the organ of a diseased city.

One of the problems I have with the T and A currently is its refusal to critically address the situation with the Odeon in Bradford city centre. The council has seemingly decided to pull down the Odeon to make way for more shops and offices. This is a ridiculous decision. Bradford is full to overflowing with unused office space. Soon we will have the offices of Thomas Cook joining the list of purpose built offices within the centre ready for immediate occupation.

And the idea of utilising the area for shops is even stupider. Bradford has a slew of closed and boarded up retail premises. We also have a strong track history of demolishing previously useful buildings to create new shops and then not actually managing to build the promised stores. Rawson Market’s old site was demolished to create a new and dynamic market hall. After the market hall failed to materialise and most of the market traders in the city had gone bust it was redeveloped into a couple of cut price shops and a stack of empty units.

Westfield is the same situation on a scale so large as to become farcical. We have a pit seemingly swallowing in the lifeblood and ambition of the city where WH Smiths, BHS, Mothercare, Pizza Hut and a raft of smaller businesses used to be.

This, clearly, is not enough failure for the council, and not something that the T and A is particularly bothered in covering. We have no coverage of the real and vocal opposition to creating yet another hole where our heritage once was.

I wish I could say that the blithe reprinting of establishment agenda as news was a new phenomenon. Unfortunately I would be as disingenuous as a typical T and A front page: in the early nineties the local (then newly privatised) water company floated the idea of standpipes and cutting off water to homes to deal with the drought. The T and A seemingly published their press releases as front page news without fact checking them. The crisis was averted without the standpipes ever being needed. Not at all because they allegedly couldn’t be used as it was impossible to isolate their supply while cutting off the water supply around them . . .

Electoral Reform As Electoral Suicide

14 July 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

This week the coalition government (I feel they need a name along the lines of “Axis of Evil”  but I can’t think of anything clever or funny) managed to lose the chance to reform the House of Lords. Oddly enough, this is only the second real bloody nose that the coalition has really suffered, the other being that the Liberal Democrat half of it managed to spectacularly lose the referendum on AV.

Nicholas Clegg has seemingly only one priority in government: to bring about electoral reform that will benefit his party. Unfortunately, in pursuing this while allowing the Conservatives to do whatever they want in general, he makes his party unelectable. He also isn’t actually managing to achieve any of his aims, with Cameron either opposing him on them or somehow unable to get them through Parliament.

The problem for the Liberals, and one I would assume they understand (although they do seem to be spectacularly politically inept sometimes), is that they are massively unpopular in the country at the moment. If they were to break away from the coalition and force an early election they would almost certainly lose seats, no matter the system. Worse, they are unlikely to ever be in the position to hold the balance of power again.

So the Liberals are stuck with allowing the Conservatives to do what they want in order to try to get any of the concessions that would change the way power is allocated in this country. The Conservatives are quite content as they know they’d fare better from an early election than the Liberals and also that the changes the Liberals want are generally unpopular in the country (partially from being associated with the Liberals themselves) and largely irrelevant. Even watered down versions stand little chance of ever becoming law.

And should any of the changes ever come to pass, it is arguable it would be at least a decade before the Liberals could position themselves in such a way as to benefit from them with the electorate. More likely is that the existing parties would find a way to work the new system and smaller parties would benefit from the change in reality as the dynamics of politics and what people actually vote on changes.

The Liberals have long since spent their political capital and are probably better served for defending the system that they have made it their sole aim to change. What they should have done they have ignored, the irrelevance they pursue has long since become counter productive dogmatism.

Facebook

15 June 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

Facebook is having a few problems with their IPO. Initially everything went well, and it rose slightly above its initial offering before falling away. Much in line with what many technology observers had predicted. Then things got a little shaky: it lost value to fall below its initial price as stories emerged about it being overvalued. These stories are now coalescing into investigations and lawsuits.

Facebook’s entire value is its user-base: the belief is that it can monetise by supplying advertising to the great many people who use it on a daily basis. The problem is that they actually haven’t managed to yet and are showing no signs of doing. If they could do it surely, by now, they actually would have. 15% of their income comes from people playing games on the platform, which is a figure that will surely drop like a stone in the post PC age.

Facebook faces a raft of problems that, to many, suggest it has actually peaked. It may grow its userbase, and it is expected to make great inroads in China, the Indian sub continent and South America. But it still has the aforementioned problem of actually monetising any of these users. In addition, it also faces the prospect of more and more of both its existing users and new users accessing facebook through mobile devices rather than computers. As hard as the company finds it to sell advertising it then serves to people who use the site on a computer it has even more with people who use a phone or similar device.

The other issue is that facebook has peaked in the countries in which it already has a foothold. The number of active users in North America is actually declining and the demographic is shifting: people over 65 are now far more likely to be on the site than those aged between 12 and 18. While they may have more disposable income this shows that facebook as a whole is losing its cachet and will face declining usage. Its greatest selling point is now its biggest weakness: we only join facebook when people we know are on it, and if no one we know is on it then it is pointless in going on the site. Worse, if people we know become less active then we too will become less active.

This all adds up to facebook being the latest tech company to flare up and then fade away. As went AOL and Myspace now goes facebook, seemingly. The people who stand to make the most money from it are those that sold the shares, rather than those who bought them.

Westfield

11 June 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

Westfield kind of exemplifies the huge mess successive Bradford councils have made of Bradford city centre. It is the proposed site for a shopping centre that would rejuvenate the city, bringing in retail jobs and much needed investment. To facilitate this they knocked down quite a lot of the existing city, with WH Smith’s, BHS, Pizza Hut, a car customisation company, a large office building and many more making way for the demolition. Which took place quickly and efficiently.

And then nothing happened. Businesses that depended on the people who had their jobs yanked out from under them or the footfall other businesses generated slowly vanished. There is now a huge pit where once the beating heart of the city was, and things get more and more depressed, with shops leaving the city never to return.

Now some protesters have invaded the site, promising not to move on until there are concrete plans in place to actually commence work on it and bring business back to the city. While I share their sentiment I can’t help but think that they’re on a hide into nothing. The company that is responsible for the site seems to be playing a game of brinksmanship where they have the site listed as an asset that they would like someone to meet their vastly inflated appraisal of. If they intended to do anything with it I am sure they would have by now. The length of time it has been left empty means that any attraction it held for business has pretty much dissipated. It wasn’t solely responsible for the decline of Bradford as a shopping centre, but it definitely accelerated it, and the state of Bradford as a centre for shopping and commerce now is such that the companies that are needed to make the shopping centre a viable proposition surely can’t be interested.

How the protesters managed to get onto the site is, once again, typical of Bradford and the Westfield site: rather than scaling the flimsy barricades or cutting the chains they managed to find a key that matched one of the padlocks and simply let themselves in. It’s typical of the level of planning for the site and the care taken that you can bypass the security so easily. It also shows exactly what the true value of the site is: If it were possible to devalue it or there was any desire to actually do anything with it then it would require far more effort to get onto it. Westfield seem to find it mildly embarrassing and worry about their legal liability, but it is obvious it isn’t affecting their plans for the site.

Obesity

7 June 2012 by Nicholas in Current Events

As it is now Summer, and we are in the midst of the silly season, the news cycle is now picking up on odder stories to run with and tie together to create a tapestry out of. One of these, apparently, is the mega obese in this country and the fact that people have resorted to partially demolishing their homes in order to get them medical help.

Now obesity is something that is on the increase across the civilised world, and especially so in the UK and US. Beyond the problems it causes those who are obese, it will also cost the health system dearly. Obesity is linked to diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks. It is also statistically linked to strokes and there are correlations with some cancers.

But the news cycle is full of mixed messages about obesity: apparently we’re cutting down on unhealthy breakfasts of bacon and eggs. This at the same time we’re getting fatter. There is a debate afoot on what language to use with the very fat to encourage them to lose weight, with a suggestion that it is moderated and made less judgemental. Taken together these are all confusing and show that we don’t really have a handle on obesity or how best to approach it.

Between 17 and 23 I was always at the upper edge of my “healthy” bmi, but at 23 I went over it into the range classified as overweight. I started dieting and read up on various ways to lose weight, finding that the Atkins and South Beach diets both appealed to me. I overdid it, as I tend to, and lost more weight than I needed to inside my first fortnight and actually ended up considerably below my target weight. I also lost muscle tone and ended up slightly ill.

But I ended up with a belief in two things: bmi is a really lousy indicator of health and carbs and trans fats are far more dangerous than fat, with white bread being worse for me than steak. I have read and believe that carbs tend to be easier for the body to convert into fuel, which means that it needs fewer calories to digest them and is therefore more likely to store calories in carbohydrate as fat. They also have a tendency to make people feel more bloated (that is anecdotal).

The last time I went to the doctor’s they had to add me back onto their register as I hadn’t needed to go for about a decade. This was obviously my fault and it was apparently quite reasonable for them to strike me from their database because I hadn’t bothered them. In the process of signing up I had to have my weight and height measured. Near the top of an overweight bmi, bordering on obese. I got a lecture about eating healthily I corrected in places. I got told to do an hour’s walking a week. Informed them I did more than that each day. I had to have my lung capacity checked twice because I obviously couldn’t have as large a result as they first recoded. I didn’t fit the overreaching narrative on obesity.

We need to work out how we treat the obese, how we tell them they are, how we measure it, how much we listen to their claims about what they eat and how active they are, what evidence we actually trust and what is causing it. It could come out of the current news cycle, but it seems the message and reasoning is massively confused and it is something we all need to face.